Title: See What I Have Done
Author: Sarah Schmidt
Genre: Crime Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Published: 28th March, 2017
Synopsis: A deeply atmospheric novel by a startling new Aussie talent; an incredibly unique look inside the mind of Lizzie Borden, famously accused of murdering her father and stepmother in 1892.
‘Eerie and compelling, Sarah Schmidt breathes such life into the terrible, twisted tale of Lizzie Borden and her family, she makes it impossible to look away.’ – Paula Hawkins, bestselling author of THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN
‘He was still bleeding. I yelled, “Someone’s killed Father.” I breathed in kerosene air, licked the thickness from my teeth. The clock on the mantel ticked ticked. I looked at Father, the way hands clutched to thighs, the way the little gold ring on his pinky finger sat like a sun. I gave him that ring for his birthday when I no longer wanted it. “Daddy,” I had said. “I’m giving this to you because I love you.” He had smiled and kissed my forehead.
A long time ago now.’
On 4 August 1892 Andrew and Abby Borden were murdered in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. During the inquest into the deaths, Lizzie Borden was arrested and charged with the murder of her father and her stepmother.
Through the eyes of Lizzie’s sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, the enigmatic stranger Benjamin and the beguiling Lizzie herself, we return to what happened that day in Fall River.
Lizzie Borden took an axe. Or did she?
See What I Have Done brings the mystery of Fall River, and the deaths of Andrew and Abby Borden to life. Living together in the Second Street house with Lizzie, the youngest daughter, and the maid Bridget. Emma has since moved out, and a fourth narrator to this tale, Benjamin, who has links to Uncle John, the first Mrs Borden’s brother (Emma and Lizzie’s biological mother), arrives the day before the murders, on the 3rd of August 1892. The next day, Andrew and Abby were dead. And this is where See What I Have Done begins, going between the perspectives of Lizzie, Emma, Benjamin and Bridget on the day of the murder and the day before, and then the days and weeks following, where one character recounts the trial as they recall it, and the events that lead to the conclusion of the case, and leaving a murderer to go free, and live out their lives.
What Sarah Schmidt does in See What I Have Done through the other three perspectives is to present alternative suspects to Lizzie. Throughout the book, each character’s motives are shown through memories and flashbacks as they navigate the day before, the day of and the days after the murders, hinting that it really could have been anybody who had been in the house, and interrogates the life that Lizzie may have lived with her father and stepmother. The loss of her pigeons is what I felt finally made Lizzie lose herself, and may have led to why she murdered her parents.
A mixture of historical fiction, literary fiction and crime fiction, See What I Have Done evokes an atmosphere of mystery and intrigue and transports the reader to the late nineteenth century in America, and into a family where secrets are kept, and tensions felt deeply by all. Because the novel is told in first person, the reader gains insight into the minds of Lizzie, Emma, Benjamin and Bridget, and we see in Lizzie and through Bridget and Emma’s perceptions of her a woman who is childlike, who perhaps has not let herself mature, or who hasn’t been allowed to be mature – this is part of the mystery, why Lizzie became who she was. Perhaps losing her mother at a young age contributed, perhaps her sister’s protection became a factor. Whatever the reason, Lizzie is shown as someone who needs protection and understanding, to whom some things might not make sense.
Out of all the narrators, Emma was the only one who was not a suspect, whereas the others had motives and could be seen as unreliable narrators – in presenting them as so – where we only see their perspective and understanding, and these narrators hide things from everyone – Sarah Schmidt has crafted a novel that presents a puzzle to the reader. It is successful in that it made me question what is known about the case, what is known from popular culture and other stories. In suggesting there may have been other suspects, another killer, Schmidt paints Lizzie the killer as an ambiguous one at times, but at others, having people question her innocence.
A novel of mystery, intrigue and literary quality, See What I Have Done sets up a story inspired by events that are yet to be solved, and gives Lizzie, Emma, their maid, Bridget and the stranger, Benjamin, a voice, and motives to kill, apart from Emma. It is a story that can stay with you long after finishing it. It is engrossing, and authentic. Reading it, I could clearly see the nineteenth century setting, hear the way they may have spoken and felt immersed in their daily life. And not only see and hear, but smell, taste and feel. It is an astounding debut novel and one that I do want to revisit, but maybe I’ll let Lizzie rest for now.